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Eric Perlman, 35, of Truckee, Calif., who has been scaling mountains since he was 16, set out in June 1985 to do something no American had done: to climb in a single season the six classic north faces of Europe—Cima Grande di Lavaredo, Matterhorn, Dru, Piz Badile, Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses and the Eiger. Perlman said early on that success was "a tremendous long shot, and almost everyone I know is betting against it." Yet he tried. Here is Perlman's chronicle of what happened—and what didn't happen.
Battleship clouds attack our wall, black and bristling, but we climb farther up the cold face and move deeper into a place with no retreat. Ice blocks as big as boulders crash down the wall and rake our route of ascent. Today is June 19, and we are halfway up the Cima Grande di Lavaredo in the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy, the first of the six faces I plan to climb between now and September. My partner, Bill Anderson, 30, is retching from time to time, penance for last night's drinking with four iron-bellied Germans. Occasionally he is hit by abdominal seizures. We probably shouldn't have climbed today, but all we've done all week is watch raindrops spatter the grimy windows of mountain rest stops. When the sky cleared this morning—our first good day since coming to Europe seven days ago—we grabbed the chance and flung ourselves at the mountain.
But this morning's good weather is now long gone. On every rope length I face at least a 100-foot fall—there are so few spots to place protective hardware on this blank, rotten limestone. Aiming for speed, we don't even stop for food and water. Somewhere above us, swallowed in clouds, is the finish.
The dim light of day begins to fade. Now the race is really on. We can't spend the night here, dangling in harnesses. We scramble up, hungry for the summit. At last, in a swirling fog, we make it. Our exhilaration is greatly tempered, though, because we're too late even to think about getting down tonight.
We sip water and nibble raisins, our first and only food of the day. We congratulate each other for our first climbing success in Europe. Now all we need to do is survive. We stack stones into a 1½-foot-high wind wall—a bivouac circle with a floor of dirt, stone and snow. The hours flow like cold syrup. Sleep comes in two-minute segments between shivering fits. We have nothing but time to ask ourselves, What the hell are we doing here?
We're the only climbers for miles around. All the Europeans have the good sense to stay home—it's June, but still winter here. We've come a little early to get a jump on the climbing season. With first light we shake off the snow, sip water and begin to search for what is usually a well-marked route down. Today, markings are buried in snow. We have no clues, but we also have no choice. We can stay here and freeze, or march into the murk. We march, and we are lucky. After eight hours we're down. The gravestones of less fortunate climbers lie scattered at the base of the peak. Picking our way through them, we head for food and bed at the local alpine hut.
The hutkeeper's wife cries out when she sees us. In machine-gun Italian she asks, "Are you hurt? Where'd you sleep? I called for the rescue team." The team leader had told her conditions were too ugly to mount a rescue. "If the Americans are still out there when the storm clears, we'll come look for them," he had said. Retrieve the bodies is what he meant. The storm won't clear for days.
We take a train for Switzerland and head for our next objective—the Matterhorn. The next thing we know we're in the village of Zermatt, elbow-jabbed by 30 kinds of tourists. Zermatt is a lot like Disneyland, except the mountains aren't concrete and paint.
We steam up the trail toward the perfect pyramid tower of the Matterhorn, barely believing that European weather could be so windless and clear. Bill and I check into a funky hut at about 10,000 feet. We eat, drink and try to sleep in the huge community bed (20 mattresses laid side by side), then roust ourselves at 2 a.m. We stomp toward the big front door when—crash...two Italian climbers burst in. They say they left at midnight to beat us up the north face, but the snow up there is thigh deep and rotten. They tell us the route is impossible and get back into bed.
Hoisting our packs, we head out the door. Thirty seconds up the trail, snow begins falling from a thick, gray sky. Maybe it's just a passing flurry. The flurry turns into a furious whiteout. Our headlamps cut barely four feet into the swirling gloom, and after 20 minutes of wallowing up to our knees, we decide to join the Italians in the community bed.